How to Design Your Learning Program

Thanks, Buddy

The other day I was texting with a friend and writer I respect dearly, Seth Oberst, and he asked me an excellent question regarding the reading process:

How do you determine what you read next though? ~Seth Oberst

I answered him then, though it felt brief and inadequate. His question inspired me to reflect on how I design my learning process.

Though I’ve mentioned my learning philosophy, it may be fruitful to delve into the details. Seth, I hope I don’t let you down.

Programming 101

Do you even lift?

If so, then this design ought to make sense to you.

If not, stop reading and go lift, bro (or bro-ette).

A good learning program has the same constituents as a good training program:

  • Goals

  • Primary Exercises

  • Secondary Exercises

  • Accessory Exercises

  • Finishers

Let’s look at each aspect.


Just as training goals are vast, so are learning achievements.

Remember, your learning goal should answer the following question:

What problem do I need to solve? ~Self

For example, one problem I had involved an athlete who developed wrist pain after falling.

I wished to learn how to best help him with his wrist pain. To meet this, goal, I structured a wrist-oriented “learning block.”

Primary Exercises

Primary exercises are your big compound lifts. Think squats, deadlifts, bench press, etc. These moves work for multiple muscle groups and are the most taxing.

The primary learning exercise should garner the most attention and provide the most results. For me, this is books.

I know I will be jailed by the #EBPPolice, but books typically provide a broader overview on topics than research articles and are often more digestible to read. One good book can give you both practical application and relevant science. It’s hard to find that in a research study lucky enough to survive your appraisal.

For my problem, I found a solid hand and wrist rehabilitation book which satisfied this principle.

While my 6-step method applies, your book may contain information irrelevant to your inquiry. Don’t be afraid to skim or even skip chapters. You’ll save time, allowing you to consume more information.

Selecting the next book should be based on what questions remain unanswered from the previous read. Most of my books are found one of two ways:

The first method is what I call “Ask Bill Hartman.” I’m not kidding. The man’s library rivals Amazon, and his recommendations have yet to fail me. He, along with several other trusted colleagues, give me many helpful book suggestions. Reach out to your network for guidance.

The second method is scouring good ol’ Amazon. I typed in “wrist rehabilitation” as my keyword and found several options. Great follow-ups can also be found by combing through the related products section.

In my case, I needed to beef up my assessment skills, so I got a book on hand and wrist examination.

Secondary Exercises

The secondary exercise compliments your primary lift. If chin-ups are your main, you might hit up chest-supported row next.

The secondary learning exercise is research.

I use research to answer aspects that the primary book either inspires or lacks. These topics could be fleshing out basic science, determining examination accuracy, treatment effectiveness, exercises, pathologies; anything to provide clarity.

My client was diagnosed with Intersection Syndrome, which I had never heard of nor was mentioned in any of my books. The research was there to save the day.

There are a few ways I accumulate research.

The first involves searching my research library. Building the library begins with subscribing to publishing alerts from multiple journals. I skim these journals, see if anything sounds interesting, and download away. The PDFs go right to my Dropbox, to which I have folders categorized into various topics. I can then go to the relevant folder and read away when the time comes.

If you are having trouble accessing the full text, this link provides many different acquisition methods. The legality of these sites ranges from perfectly legal to an alternate nerd reality of your Napster days.

After perusing my research library, it’s time to get some Pubmed gainzzz. I’ll search Pubmed with relevant keywords to find more recent studies.

Another great place to look is an article’s reference section. Perhaps something was briefly mentioned in the introduction and you wish to know more. You can find gold here.

Accessory Exercises

Accessory exercises are meant to shore up weak areas that you didn’t hit with the main lifts.

Everything else fits in here, including:


Yes, as much as I love con ed, I can’t go to a course every day. That said, it is a great medium for hitting the highlights of a particular matter, and ripe with practical application.

Reference books

These texts would be your basic science textbooks: anatomy, physiology, kinesiology, etc. So when my guy got hit with a wrist injury, you know I grabbed my Neumann Kinesiology for a quick review.


Youtube is a wonderful place for visual learners. If I see an unfamiliar test or technique, I find a demonstration from a sharp clinician. Videos frequently trump text explanations. If I want to learn more about the basic sciences, Crash Course and Makemegenius are incredibly useful.


Talking problems out with your colleagues can provide a helpful perspective. When you are hunting amongst the trees, a trusted colleague observing the forest can provide unique answers.

Blogs & Podcasts

It’s always good to see how people I respect approach problems. I’ll go to blogs and podcasts when I want to see a different take on things. Oftentimes these sources can direct me to other helpful references.


You just finished training. You’re smoked. You can barely walk.

When all of a sudden, you look up in the mirror and are overcome with horror.

Your biceps are looking a little small, aren’t they?

What day is it? Oh shit, it’s Friday. You’re going out with your friends later. You might run into a cute girl (#curlsforthegirls), or a guy (#bisfortheguys).

So what do you do? You crush out a set or 5 of cheat curls, get a pump that would leave Arnold awestruck, and set the night on fire. You wake up the following morning after some bad decisions and realize your biceps don’t look any different. It’s a vicious cycle.

You know damn well what the learning equivalent is of this!

You’re spending time learning about plyometrics, researching post-activation potentiation, and referencing musculotendinous junctions. Then it happens.

You go on Amazon and see Robert Sapolsky drops a new book.

You know it has nothing to do with what you’re learning right now, but it’s frickin’ Sapolsky, man! He’s dropping a new book is the nerd equivalent of a Led Zeppelin reunion tour.

You might think that because I advocate focusing on one topic that I’ll want you to resist the urge.

You’d be dead wrong.

Go ahead. Order it. Hell, I already have my copy. Just consider this reading for what it is: reading for pleasure.

If topical reading is special physical preparation, then pleasure reading is general physical preparation. Reading widely can give us unconventional perspectives, inspire, and change the way we view the world. The way we live.

I would put this type of reading along a continuum of gaming, Netflix nights, surfing Youtube, and going to the movies. Life cannot always be about work. These mediums can keep us sane. Keep us human.

You know, like bicep curls.

I don’t expect Sapolsky’s book to have many practical applications, but he writes fascinating stuff with unprecedented skill. So I’m going to read it.

Just realize where this fits into your overall learning program, and plan accordingly:

After you’ve read your important stuff, preferably on Fridays before you go out.

Changing Blocks

You’ve been diving into a topic for a while now, learning a great deal, and are now wondering how long you should stay on this block.

My timetables have ranged from one weekend to several months, so I don’t get too specific. Instead, there are only one criteria that I must pass before I move onto a different topic:

A more important problem needs solving.

My guy’s wrist was getting a lot better and he was able to play without a great deal of pain. With my colleagues’ encouragement, we needed to implement a workload management program with my team. This problem took precedence because 1) solving this problem would immensely benefit the entire team, and 2) I wasn’t well versed in the science. Though I was far from an expert on the wrist and hand, I put that material aside and plunged into studying workload.

Situations like the above expose us to the dirty little secret about learning:

You never solve the problem.

Sure, my guy was getting better, but how could I have helped him return faster? Are there more accurate assessments? How can we reduce his injury risk? All questions left unanswered; tabled for another day.

There is so much to learn about any given topic that you can and should feel like you have not fully grasped the subject. That feeling is normal and should continue pushing you to learn more.

But as we learn more, new and more complex problems will manifest. You will be required to shift gears, and dive into unfamiliar territory. It is this very reason why that old saying of “the more you know you the less you realize you know” is so true. These challenges are what make learning so exciting. Make learning so much fun.

Make learning so much work.


There’s a glimpse into how my learning process is structured. To summarize:

  • Solve problems.

  • Choose a book as your primary read.

  • Fill in the gaps with research.

  • Supplement books and research with everything else.

  • Read for fun, and read widely.

  • Change topics when you are faced with a greater problem.

What does your learning program look like? Comment below.


  1. Thanks for writing this Zac! As a new grad trying to structure my learning beyond what I have been doing in the classroom (which was basically structured for me) is the next step.

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